On 25 September senators voted 85 to one in favour of authorising the minimum 30-year project, known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which commits federal coffers to pay half the cost of saving the threatened UN World Heritage Site.

The plan would effectively undo much of the engineering of the last 50 years in which water was diverted from the Everglades to urban centres and huge tracts were drained from the complex system of marshes, waterways and grasslands to make room for agriculture and development. The Senate legislation authorises the first $1.4 billion instalment towards the first 11 projects attempting to restore a rich ecosystem which has shrunk to less than half its original size.

The main objectives of the plan, apart from attempting to recapture diverted water, will be water storage, storm water treatment areas, agricultural storage reservoirs, building bridges and raising a highway. The state of Florida will have to pay for the other half of the total $7.8 billion dollar project.

With the end of the House of Representatives’ legislative session on 6 October, the race is now on to push CERP through, though it has the support of both Republicans and Democrats and Florida’s governor Jeb Bush as well as the president.

“This plan is not without risk,” said New Hampshire Republican Senator Bob Smith, who helped steer the measure through the Senate. “But if we do nothing, we lose the Everglades. We need to take this risk to save this precious ecosystem.”

The major worry associated with the plan is that the final price of the restoration could even shoot way above the already hefty price tag, as many of the planned projects involve untested technology and there is no fixed timetable for the plans.

Indeed, a recent report by the federal General Accounting Office (GAO), said that “it is likely that modifications and additions to the Plan will be necessary and that these changes could increase the total cost of the plan over the Corps’ current estimate of $7.8 billion”.

The Senate’s decision attracted widespread praise amongst politicians and campaigners: “For the first time in history, we have a comprehensive plan for making the heart of the Everglades pulse once again with clean, abundant water,” said Carol Browner, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“The time to save the Everglades is at hand. I urge the House to adopt this bill in an expeditious manner so that we can begin the restoration of this national treasure,” commented Vice-President Al Gore, whilst Shannon Estenoz, Director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Everglades Programme, described the decision as “one huge step closer to making Everglades Restoration a reality”. She also said the plan was“the largest ecological restoration project in history to save one of America’s most unique natural treasures.”

The Everglades was inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) List of the World Heritage in Danger in 1993 after the park’s Superintendent informed the organisation of extensive damage to Everglades’ ecology due to a number of causes including nearby urban growth, pollution from fertilisers, mercury poisoning of fish and wildlife, and a fall in water levels caused by flood protection measures.

This 300 mile-long and 60 mile-wide ‘river of grass’ was originally declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it possesses an “exceptional variety” of water habitats, making it a sanctuary for more than 300 bird species, as well as for more than 60 federally listed threatened or endangered species, including the Florida panther, the Key deer, and the American crocodile.

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